Beavers get the upper hand after wildlife traps become taboo

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Damned if they do–and dammed if they don’t. That’s how lawmakers feel about their attempts to modify a voter-approved ban on wildlife traps, even though a burgeoning beaver population is plugging their hometown storm sewers. And with spring in the air, municipal officials are worried about the havoc those the busy beavers are wreaking on municipal budgets.

Rep. Mark Carron, a Southbridge Democrat, acknowledges that he is a “human-beings-first type of person” but insists that the 1996 ballot question that prohibited the use of leg-hold traps, however well-intentioned, has been a practical failure. “We’re so compromised and mired with the ineffectiveness of the law the way it is,” Carron says.

Leg-hold mechanisms, which animal-rights activists denounced as cruel, were overwhelmingly banned by voters, but many are now blaming the law for increasingly problematic wildlife activity. Besides beavers plugging up storm drains and flooding streets, recent reports of coyote attacks on pets in rural and suburban backyards have spurred calls for modification, if not repeal, of the trap-ban.

“You can’t control where a dam is going to be built or where a development is going to occur,” says Carron, who’s sponsoring legislation that would abolish the restriction on leg-hold traps. “You can’t tell beavers to build only on state property.”

Virginia Fuller, one of the architects of the ballot measure, says current law allows for all sorts of solutions to health hazards, flooding, and property damage caused by pests. These measures include water-control devices that deter beavers from building their dams.

John Clarke, director of advocacy at Massachusetts Audubon Society, agrees that there are non-lethal means available to those truly concerned with the beaver problem. “That’s what you have to look at,” says Clarke. Are these alternative methods “being enforced and taken advantage of?”

But Carron says local officials are losing ground as the unhunted animals multiply like rabbits. Fuller agrees that the beaver population is on the rise, but he says that it’s because of earlier efforts by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to bring back the beaver, not because of the trap ban.

In any case, communities discover the animals’ presence–and their handiwork–only after the floods begin. In Gardner, which has more than 40 culverts, city workers are at a loss to know when and where beavers will plug up the works. Gardner state Rep. Brian Knuuttila says towns like his simply can’t afford to install anti-beaver devices all over the city, and they haven’t always proved effective. In the fall, Gardner had to reroute a number of school buses because of flooding caused by beaver dams.

Dane Arnold, the city’s public works chief, estimates that his department spends 52 days a year undoing the work of the beavers. And each time city workers use a metal claw to break down and remove dams in culverts, it damages the walls of the pipe, he says.

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After many years of stalemate, however, Knuuttila and Carron have come up with a compromise proposal that would allow the rascally critters to be captured once again, but only within specific geographical parameters and on specific dates. The pilot program would be overseen by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

“We’re willing to do anything to get something through so we can manage the population,” says Knuuttila.

Stacie N. Galang is a writer living in West Newton.